A Chicago political consultant and a former journalist, Axelrod was Barack Obama's chief campaign strategist and currently serves as senior adviser to the president-elect. He previously helped shape the Senate campaigns of Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 20, 2008.
“We didn't minimize the [Clinton] challenge. But there are also things that are larger than the individuals who are running. There are macro forces that drive elections.”
- Highlights from this interview
- Obama's decision to run in 2008
- The voting coalition fundamental to their 2008 strategy
- Obama's take on the New Hampshire loss
- The new "ferocity" in the media's coverage
- Related Link
- "Obama's Narrator"
Ben Wallace-Wells' 2007 New York Times Magazine profile of Axelrod.
You've been in this game for a long time. Tell me about the first time you met Sen. Obama.
A friend of mine in politics in Chicago, a prominent activist named Bettylu Saltzman, called me in 1992, and she said: "I just met the most remarkable young guy, and I think you ought to meet him. I know this is going to sound silly, but I think he could be the first African American president." And I thought, well, that's a pretty grandiose statement; I ought to go over and meet this fellow.
It was Barack Obama. He had just come back from law school, and he was running Project Vote, which was a voter registration drive. We had a really nice visit. I was impressed by him. I can't say I was ready to say that he was going to be the first black president, but I knew he was going to be an influential leader in our community because he had such good, such positive qualities and such obvious motivation to do positive things.
We became friends, and I would see him from time to time over the years. And in 2002, I heard he was thinking about running for the U.S. Senate. I visited with him and told him that if he ran that I'd like to work with him. This was for the 2004 election. And we hooked up, and we've been working together ever since.
Judge [Abner] Mikva told us that you've got to fall in love with a candidate before you work with him. What do you have invested in this campaign?
I do love Barack Obama. I believe in him. I think he's an extraordinary person -- not just an extraordinary public person, but an extraordinary private person. The thing about presidential campaigns are they're sort of like a giant MRI for your personality and for your personal qualities. And by the end of the campaign, you really get to see who people are. And what I've learned is how well he handles it. There's an inner kind of serenity to him so that when things get chaotic, when things get challenging, he gets more focused; he gets more thoughtful; he gets more incisive. And we've seen it time and again during this campaign. By now you say, "Boy, I'd love to see a president like that," you know? So I'm very invested in this for the country as well as for my friend.
The analogy of the Kennedys comes up all the time, that this guy, for whatever reason, has something going for him that just really wins people over.
There's no doubt that he's an appealing personality, but I think it's larger than that. I think people respond to his idealism. He believes in our democracy, has a great sense of hope about the future, and he conveys that. And I think people respond to that. We've been so ground down by our politics, and here comes a guy who seems to light up the room and illuminate the future. I think people are hungry for that.
Take me to the 2004 convention speech. When this great opportunity came along, how did you guys view it?
We were riding around in downstate Illinois -- this was in the middle of his Senate race -- and the phone rang, and it was Mary Beth Cahill, the campaign manager for John Kerry, calling to ask Sen. Obama to give the keynote speech at the convention. Great honor. He was yet still a state senator and running for the U.S. Senate. When he hung up the phone, he was excited in a low-key kind of way, which is his way. He was pensive for a little while and he said, "I know exactly what I want to say." He said, "I really want to talk about my story as part of the larger American story."
He really had a concept almost immediately in his head of what he wanted to communicate, and over the course of the next few weeks, he would write little bits and pieces on scraps of paper. He would go into the men's room in the state Senate and jot things down. And eventually he sat down, brought all his scraps of paper together, and he banged out a draft of this speech.
I was in Europe on a brief vacation with my wife, and this fax arrived. It was his speech draft. I read the first page and handed it to my wife, and read the second page. By about the third page I realized, this is going to be one of the great convention speeches of all time. It just blew me away that he could sit down and do this in the midst of everything else that he was doing. The speech that he gave at the convention was probably 80 percent in that first draft that he wrote.
You're standing in the auditorium that night. What was it like?
I understood immediately that things had changed. I was standing behind a couple of prominent journalists who were commenting to each other about how powerful the speech was, and all around were people with tears in their eyes.
The next day when we walked through the streets of Boston, people were just mobbing Obama to congratulate him on the speech and tell him how much they appreciated it and so on. His life changed overnight, really, with that speech.
When do you know that he is a viable presidential candidate?
We started off with a very strong conviction that he should not run for president or vice president in 2008. He wanted to hunker down and really learn the ropes as a senator and be as good a senator as he can be. In fact, for the first year or so of his tenure in the Senate, he stayed off of the Sunday shows. He kept a very low profile because he just wanted to learn the ropes there.
But what happened was a couple of things. He's touring at this time and the Senate is in session. Obama was touring all over the country for Democratic candidates. Everywhere he went, crowds were huge and enthusiastic, record crowds at all these fund-raising events. And most folks were coming and saying, "Gee, I hope you really consider running for president."
He didn't take it very seriously at first, but then he went off to Africa and got a spectacular reaction there and realized how much influence you could have in a leadership role as an American president, that you could make a real -- I think he knew that intellectually, but --
And then his book was released in the fall 2006, and he traveled the country on this book tour. Thousands of people would show up for these book signings, and everybody went through the line [urging him] to run for president. This was the closest thing to a draft that I've seen in my lifetime. He had no intention of running. Then slowly over time, so many people urged him to think about, and the crowds were so enthusiastic, and he said, "I think I owe it to myself and I owe it to them to at least consider this."
The major discussion took place right after the November election. It was not one of those things where he said instantly, "I want to do this." He had a lot of questions and a lot of skepticism about it, and wanted to approach the whole process in a methodical way.
The decision was actually made formally right after the new year in 2007. He went off to Hawaii at the end of 2006 with his family and thought hard about it and came back and said, "I think I want to do this." And then a few days into the year, he formalized that with us and said, "Let's go."
At that point, Mrs. Clinton would have to be considered the front-runner. So when you specifically look at her as a candidate, what's your evaluation? What's the plan that you come up with?
Look, I knew Hillary Clinton well. I worked for her when she ran for the Senate in 2000. I consider her a good friend. I knew how formidable she was. I knew she was indefatigable and that she would be as tenacious as all get-out. I knew she'd have this great organization behind her, and she obviously had the help of a great political force of nature in Bill Clinton. So we didn't minimize the challenge in trying to win this nomination.
But there are also things that dictate elections that are larger than the individuals who are running. There are macro forces that drive elections. We felt that George Bush would define this election, that people were going to look for someone who was much different, who was a uniting and healing personality, someone who was not dogmatic and identified with extreme partisanship, someone who was independent of special interests. And frankly we viewed it as a plus, given how jaundiced people were of Washington generally, that Obama hadn't spent a lot of years in Washington.
I think that the Clinton campaign made a strategic misjudgment by trying to run as the consummate Washington insider. They wanted to press the experience issue. Well, this isn't a year when being around Washington a lot of time is necessarily helpful. People were looking for change and for the candidate most likely to bring it, and we felt Obama could be that candidate.
It's been written about before that it's a November 2006 meeting where a bunch of you come together to really consider the plan where you go ahead. At some point in that meeting, someone says, "Oh, by the way, if and when the race issue comes up, how we going to deal with it?"
First of all, understand that Obama's orientation toward the issue of race in politics was formed by his experiences in Illinois. He ran for the U.S. Senate. He campaigned vigorously in downstate rural areas that were closer to Little Rock than Chicago and did very, very well there, in part because, as he said, a lot of those folks were just like his grandparents from Kansas.
And one of the great gifts that he has is his ability to feel comfortable not just with himself but with everyone else in any room, in any setting. So I think he had ultimate confidence in his ability, and also in the willingness of the American people to embrace him.
So I don't think anybody was Pollyannaish. We knew that race is a major fault line in American politics, in American society. But he won two great landslides in Illinois -- the first a very surprising one -- and he did it by forging a coalition that was mostly white. So we felt comfortable that we could overcome those obstacles.
In previous races [it seemed] that Obama needed to confirm his black status for a black population, and he learned certain lessons.
First of all, I never felt in our campaign for the Senate that he had to make a special effort to reach the African American community. I always felt that if we did it right that he would rise in prominence in the campaign, and the community would see this and respond to it and respond to him. Obviously we made appeals there, but they weren't particularly different than the appeals we made anywhere else.
The 2004 elections were the leading edge of the movement for change. You saw it in 2006 in the congressional elections. It's carried through. I think his [Senate] election was a harbinger of that, and it was something that swept across different communities but was important to signify common values. And he is very good at that because he is actually very rooted and traditional, and his values are very familiar to Americans, white as well as black. They're fundamentally American values.
In Iowa, you create a new coalition in some ways. One of the things you did is bring in a huge youth vote. What was the thought behind the necessity of creating a new coalition?
Our whole candidacy was predicated on the notion that the electorate would look different in 2008 than it had in the past, that we'd expand the universe of voters, that we would motivate a lot of young people, but not just young people. We knew we couldn't win otherwise.
As it turned out, we basically doubled the turnout over the previous contested caucus four years earlier. And that was fundamental to our strategy. If we didn't accomplish that, we weren't going to get past Iowa.
When the Iowa caucuses went in your direction, what were your thoughts?
The night that Obama won the Iowa caucuses was one of the most emotional nights of the campaign, because we knew that it was a sort of a make-or-break deal. We'd all been working hard for a year at that point on this, and the enormity of it was clear to all of us. We thought if you could win Iowa, you're in a really good position to win the nomination.
I don't think any of us had a sense that it would be 53 more contests before we did. But I remember it being a very emotional night.
Not as much fun.
What happened? Overconfident?
You know, yes. We assumed that five days after Iowa, that if you won the Iowa caucuses and you had momentum, you could win the New Hampshire primary.
We went into New Hampshire with a lot of confidence and campaigned in a way that bespoke that confidence, probably more than we should have. Meanwhile, Sen. Clinton, I think, was very scrappy. She knew that her back was against the wall. That was the first time we saw that quality that became familiar to us throughout the campaign, this tenacious, pugnacious quality, and this ability to get close to the ground and close to people.
The other thing that happened was that all the polls showed us surging, so the Saturday before the Tuesday in which there was voting, we had a big lead. There was a debate in which it appeared as if everybody was ganging up on Sen. Clinton. That Monday, she became emotional in an event. That got a lot of coverage. And I think that confluence of events just worked against us.
It was like a perfect storm because people thought, well, Obama's got it, so this was a no-cost vote. Some of the independent voters who would have voted for us moved over to vote for [Sen. John] McCain in the Republican primary, and we ended up losing by two points, though the polls all said we would win by double digits.
I think the day after New Hampshire, we drove to Boston for a fund-raiser that we thought was going to be a triumphant fund-raiser. Instead, we had gotten this news from the voters of New Hampshire. Sen. Obama had gotten about three hours' sleep. He had no notes, and he gave one of the great speeches of the campaign in talking about New Hampshire.
He said, "You know, I've been thinking about this, and it may sound like spin to you, but I think this was meant to be." He said: "I think we were like Icarus flying too close to the sun. And this is not how change happens. Change is not meant to be easy. Change always comes with a struggle. No one wanted to hand us this. We have to fight for it. And let me tell you why it's important that we make that fight."
And he just lit the room up, and everybody left pumped up and excited. But I think his analysis was exactly right. We hadn't earned the right to be the nominee in New Hampshire, and the New Hampshire voters made that clear.
But the Clinton campaign had some problems. They also didn't seem to be as good as you were at the math. When you were focusing on caucus states and smaller states and looking at the numbers, did you keep looking around, waiting for the Clinton folks to show up?
Yeah. I think at some point it became apparent to us that the Clinton campaign had not doped out the process to the degree they should have. They basically abandoned the caucus states to us and allowed us to roll up huge margins that translated into delegate pickups that exceeded what they were winning in some of the large states.
It was a real miscalculation on their part. It was bewildering to us, but we were obviously happy to be the beneficiary of their miscalculation.
South Carolina -- a lot of people were angry at some of the things President Clinton said. What was the effect of South Carolina on your campaign? And what was the debate over how Sen. Obama should respond to some of the things that were being said?
[There] were a handful of days in this campaign that were absolutely pivotal. The days around the South Carolina primary were one of those. The week before South Carolina was a really acrimonious week. Everybody knew a lot was on the line. President Clinton was campaigning vigorously in South Carolina for Sen. Clinton, and in ways that seemed very edgy. It was the first state in which there was a large black population, and the issue of race became front and center.
We had a very spirited debate with Sen. Clinton in Myrtle Beach during that week in which they really went at each other in a way that they hadn't before that and didn't after. So the whole atmosphere was rife with tension. And then the Friday before the primary, which was on a Saturday, there was a Mason-Dixon poll for NBC, and it suggested that our support among white voters had basically collapsed, that we were going to get, like, 10 percent of that vote.
That became the story line for the last 24 hours. Well, when the votes were counted, we got closer to 30 percent of that vote and won a landslide. In fact, I was sitting with Michelle Obama doing an interview with her and my BlackBerry went off and it was the early exit polls. I stared at my BlackBerry and I said, "This can't be," because it said we were 30 points ahead. I said, "I just don't believe it." … And she's going, "What? What?" And finally I say, "This says we're going to win by 30 points." And she said, "Don't ever do that to me again," because she assumed that it was going to be bad news.
The speech he gave that night was one of the most incisive of the campaign. There was some real edge to it. I think it went to sort of the fundamental differences he saw between the candidates in the campaign. It was a hugely important night.
Then the next morning, Caroline Kennedy endorsed us on the pages of The New York Times. And of course Monday, Sen. [Ted] Kennedy [D-Mass.] followed in this spectacular event in Washington. The emotional lift of those three events I think propelled us through the month of February.
When the Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright comments came out and the whole hubbub happened, what were your thoughts? How did you decide to deal with it?
The Rev. Wright episode was one of those episodes in which I began to see a president in real stark terms, because the stories broke; it was a feeding frenzy in the media. He was in Washington voting until 1:00 in the morning. We had set up some editorial board interviews the next day in Chicago on a different, also challenging subject. So he flew back into the city in the middle of the day on Friday, and he issued a statement on Rev. Wright -- we had written one; he rewrote it. Went off to his editorial boards for three hours, went on television, sat for three or four different interviews on Rev. Wright, and then said that night, "I want to do a speech on race; I want to put this in context."
He had mentioned the desire to make a speech like this before, but this seemed like the right time. And he said, "And I want to do it on Monday or Tuesday." He said, "But I have to write it."
So he went off campaigning on Saturday and came home. At 9:30 Saturday night he dictated an outline to one of his speechwriters, who shot it back to him on Sunday. Sunday night at 10:00, he started working on it again, and worked until 3:00 in the morning. We took off at 8:00 in the morning the next day, on Monday. The speech was Tuesday. Campaigned all day in Pennsylvania, and then from 9:30 till 2:00 in the morning on Monday, he finished the speech.
Knowing his habits, I just went to sleep, thinking I'd wake up in the middle of the night because the speech would be there in the middle of the night. And that's what happened. And I read that speech, and I just e-mailed him back and said, "This is why you should be president," because it was so filled with wisdom and so profound in many ways that it just blew me away that a guy in the midst of all this chaos, with no sleep and in the middle of the night, could produce that kind of thought and that kind of work.
How has this process, going through all of this, changed him?
His learning curve -- he understands the rhythms of presidential politics in a way that he obviously didn't when this began.
This campaign has become a large corporation, and the undertaking is enormously complicated, and he has led in a really significant way the organization. Whenever we hit a pothole, he's been the guy who's dragged us out and pointed us in the right direction. And his staffing decisions and everything he's done, how he's handled challenges and how he's worked with a group through challenges, he's just -- I think he's exercised his executive muscles here, and he's done it very skillfully.
His comments in San Francisco [about Americans being "bitter" and "cling(ing) to guns and religion"] led to the Clintons using this and talking about his inability to win over white working-class voters. What was the strategy to deal with that? And more than that, how does it define a problem, or not, in getting the message through for that group of Democrats?
The story of the comment in San Francisco I think was helped from our standpoint because the other side was so vigorously trying to exploit it, and I think they overplayed their hand and created kind of a backlash in our favor. Our strategy was to counterpunch and to underscore that others were trying to exploit what was obviously a mistake.
In terms of those voters, though, the people who are referred to generally as blue-collar whites, working-class whites, are also the folks who are most dislocated in this economy, most afraid of where we're going or aggravated about where we're going. They understand that their economic future doesn't lie with a continuation of the same policies -- and that is what John McCain is offering. So there's no doubt that we had our challenges in dealing with Hillary Clinton. Among these voters, she was very popular, very effective.
[Time magazine's] Mark Halperin has written that to be successful in the business of running a candidate, you have to control the story. How did you guys maintain the story that you wanted people to understand?
I think a successful campaign is built on a foundation of truth and is consistent. We had a fundamental message that animated the Obama campaign from the very beginning and really didn't change very much over the course of a campaign. It was rooted in who he was, his values and his background and his history, and him as a force for change in a year when change was what this election was going to be all about.
And we never -- and we still haven't -- diverged from that, not just because it works but because it's true. And I think one of the problems that some of the other candidates faced is that they didn't have a consistent story. And when you start changing your story line, when you're one thing one day and another thing the next, it creates a dissonance that concerns voters.
The Pennsylvania debate was not an easy night for Sen. Obama. What were your thoughts on that debate as it was happening?
I knew that he probably wasn't going to have a good debate that night because I'd been with him all day. We had a couple of meetings that required a lot of energy and attention on his part. And my strong sense was that he wasn't really that eager. We had debated 20-some-odd times, and I don't think he was that eager for another one. He was going sort of grudgingly.
So his mind-set wasn't where I would want it to be, and where it had been in all the previous debates for the last several weeks, in which he was very, very good. So I was nervous going in. And then we faced 50 minutes of questions, almost all of them about Obama and almost all of them very provocative. Sitting there watching it, you knew this is not going to be helpful. And there was a little bit of irritation about the way the whole thing was structured. So we knew we had taken on some water.
What's your overall view on what Halperin calls the "freak show" -- the way the media is involved in campaigns these days, and differently than it had been in the past?
There's a ferocity in the coverage because the competition now isn't just between news organizations, but blogs and news organizations, and people feel obliged to follow both. So it creates this sort of mad cycle of activity, and oftentimes unfiltered information becoming part of the process. Someone sends out an e-mail and makes an irresponsible charge, and someone picks it up, and then someone else, and then everybody else feels like they have to cover it -- if not the charge itself, then the fact that the charge had been made. You see that a lot.
And it's not always a wholesome thing, because you're forced to react to a lot of nonsense, frankly, during the course of a day.
One of the great challenges in a campaign today is to understand what's real and what's not, what's worthy of your attention, what isn't, because there's so much to react to in this news environment that you could be chasing rabbits down a hole every day. …
As everybody says, it's a very historic election. From your point of view, why? What is important to understand about this election and the choice that the voters have?
I think it's a historic election in part because of the times we find ourselves in. We're involved in essentially two wars. Our economy's in a very difficult place. So there's a sense of gravity of problems closing in on us that require solution now, because if we don't solve them now, we may not be able to solve them. I think that's part of it.
Part of it is the personalities involved, larger-than-life personalities -- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, [former New York City Mayor] Rudy Giuliani. For a drama to be good theater, it has to have good actors, good parts written, and there were just some luminescent personalities in this race.
And obviously the fact that you had a woman for the first time seriously contending for the White House, an African American for the first time, has brought new people in and a lot of new ferment into the process.
When you look at it -- all this work you've been involved in, everything you've been doing, all these sleepless nights -- what kind of leader will Obama make?
I think Obama has the qualities to be a remarkable leader because he's incredibly bright and very centered, so that I don't think you'll ever see a time when issues will arise and he'll shrink from them. He accepts them all as challenges, intellectual challenges. And he doesn't have that sort of paralyzing fear of failure that some politicians have. I've watched him lead this campaign. I've seen how he's dealt with the senior staff and the junior staff, and what I see are just extraordinary leadership qualities.
Are you guys remaking the Democratic Party?
Well, 3.5 million new voters joined the Democratic Party in the primary season alone. I think there will be millions more by the general election. We've motivated young people to a degree they hadn't been motivated in 40 years. We've obviously motivated great interest in the African American community. So I think this campaign has already been a success in terms of the energy that it's brought to the process.
And if you lose this?
I don't ponder that. We're not planning on losing this election. But when the story of Obama is written, people will look back at this election and say that something great was accomplished in terms of the hope and the activity and energy that he's generated.